The Problem with the Super Highway

[Excerpted from "The Hunt for High-Tech Information", Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1994]

Everyone wants to be part of the information highway. Isn't it odd that with all this talk about infrastructure no one is building cars? We will have superhighways, but they will support the travel of horses and buggies who might be well advised to stick to the old roads anyway.

Whenever new technology is introduced, it tends to look a great deal like what it is replacing when the transition begins. The first cars were simply motorized buggies. Early movies were often just plays on film. Early television was radio with pictures. It was a long time after Gutenberg before novels became a recognized art form.

So, what difference does it make if the great information highway makers can't think of anything better to deliver than movies that already have effective delivery mechanisms, or newspapers that are probably better read in their traditional form, or dial-up print-outs of the Mona Lisa? Eventually the industry will evolve a new kind of vehicle for the information highway, one that will be worth the wait. Won't it?

Well, maybe it will, but it will be a long time coming, considering the lack of investment so far, and those backing the information highway cannot afford to wait. With the massive investment being made in infrastructure by the federal government and with the mergers and buyouts going on in industry, with a variety of companies poised to make their moves in highway building, it is amazing how little effort is being devoted to creating the content that will move on the highway. No one seems to be thinking in an interesting way about what the cars on the information highway should look like, what they should be able to do, and who could possibly build them.

A recent announcement from the federal government entitled "The National Information Infrastructure: The Administration's Agenda for Action" asks its reader to "Imagine the dramatic changes in your life if: the best schools, teachers, and courses were available to all students, without regard to geography...The vast resources of art, literature and science were available everywhere...You could see the latest movies, play the hottest video games...You could obtain government information directly..." It is in this very imagining that the problem lies. Is the government investing hundreds of millions so that it will be easier to play video games and watch movies? Is the problem with our educational system simply that there are great courses out there that students are missing because they live in the wrong place? Are the complexities of dealing with government going to be made easier if all the thousands of government pamphlets that nobody reads now are made available on a computer? Is the reason that so few people use libraries or go to art museums simply that they can't do these things at home? Someone has misunderstood something profoundly.

The misunderstanding lies in the assumption that what people will want to do on the information highway is precisely what they have been doing all along without it. There are some tremendous needs in our society that the information highway could satisfy, but these aren't being talked about at all. Why not?

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